The chest slowly opened with a noticeable stiffness but little noise. The insides glowed with the reflected torchlight from Braedo’s illuminated klar. Braedo let his fingers skim through the pile of gold and silver. It was a respectable haul. Braedo had only seen its like once before and the similarity of it summoned the memory to the forefront of his thoughts.
Braedo stood up looking at the pile of foreign coins in his hand and let them slip through his fingers like coagulated clumps of blood. He didn’t hear them clunk back into the chest as he backed away allowing the others to inspect the rewards of such a difficult confrontation. He settled into a crouch and let his klar down to remove his hand. Braedo flexed his hand and rubbed the two together but the sensation of blood upon it remained. It was joined by the tingle of remembered pain in his jaw and Braedo was disturbed enough that he rose and looked around for something to do. The pool shimmered in the arcane light and Braedo noted to himself that the pool might hold something swept into it by a flood; and he hoped that its cold water might wash the feeling from his hands and numb his jaw.
The water was colder than he thought it would be and he could already feel the beginnings of the tremors in his muscles as he pulled himself through the clear water. Unfortunately it didn’t help to banish the taint on his hand and the cold had only pulled real pain out of the side of his face. Braedo didn’t mind it though, he had long learned to survive the environment and the pains of past combat wounds but the ghosts of his past were more difficult to endure and the water in his ears deafened him with just the sound of his quickening pounding heartbeat.
The world had suddenly become an explosion of sensations: the impact with the soiled tavern floor where he’d cracked the back of his head, the lingering sensation of the gold that had just slid like oil between his fingers, the roar and jeers of the rough mocking patrons around him but it was the pain ripping through the side of his face that he’d only been aware of. Immediately it had swollen and his eye had blackened and swelled shut over its bloody gaze.
Braedo had blinked trying to clear his head only to find Pallok standing over him counting those coins that had fallen on the floor of the Bloodbrothers. He pocketed them, looked down at the boy sprawled out in the wet sawdust bleeding on the floor.
“What did you think you were doing boy?”
Braedo had tried to answer but the pain had been too great, his jaw had refused to work. Pallok had loomed over him without any sign that he had just struck him. Braedo remembered the look in his eyes, the look his lover would get when he would get too rough, when he took what he wanted, when he killed the people, the families, they had robbed. Braedo vaguely remembered Fezzen the Chelish sorcerer turning away to ignore the scene to come and Veldranin leaning her head towards them in order to not miss a moment. The smile on her face had built the fear in him that night on the floor of that tavern in Kaer Maga. She relished watching anyone being dominated, abused; it excited her and fueled her witchcraft.
Braedo had sucked in a breath before trying to stammer out something to say to appease the massive Shoanti warrior, to explain his error, to forestall what he knew was going to happen but Pallok had just crouched next to him with slow purposeful movements and laid a gentle finger on Braedo’s swollen lip. Braedo hadn’t been able to make any sound but shallow breaths.
“That isn’t yours to touch Braedo. It’s mine. Fezzan’s, Veldranin’s and mine. You fought with us sure but it’s still mine, like you are. If you get anything at all it comes from me; when I want to give it, how I want to give it, as much or as little as I want to give and you’re going to take it and be happy, thankful for whatever it is.”
Braedo remembered nodding. He remembered hating himself for nodding then with the crowd around them laughing at the exchange, making crude comments. He had remembered feeling he hadn’t nodded enough as Pallok calmly stood up.
“You shouldn’t disappoint me Braedo. You make these choices, do these things, and it just illustrates just how undeserving of being a Shoanti you are, how disrespectful of me as well. It pains me to punish you, to reteach you just what your role is, what your for but if you need it then how can I not comply.”
Whatever Pallok had said after that, and he hadn’t stopped talking in his calm deep timbre the entire time, was lost amid the kicking, punching and the impacts with of an axe handle or the violation there in the middle of Bloodbrother’s for the patrons to watch. It had been the worst of a series of bad, Braedo had passed out.
When he had awoken Braedo had found himself aching all over and tasting the bitter, minty, effervescent aftertaste of what was presumably a healing draught. He remembered the feeling of the sheer fabric of the satin sheets and the piercing pain of knitting bones and mending flesh. The room had the light odor of sweet wood smoke and incense as well as a medicinal scent nearby. His face had still been swollen but he could use both eyes and opened them to the sight of a young handsome man about his own age pouring a cup of tea and gathering a bowl of warmed water and some towels.
The smartly dressed youth noticed Braedo was awake and gave him a friendly smile as he sat next to Braedo on the bed and threw a handful of herbs into the basin.
“Sit up my friend and I’ll bathe you as best I can, remove some of the blood and filth plus the infusion will help you heal and sleep.”
Braedo had allowed the youth to help him sit up in the bed and noticed then that he had been naked beneath the light sheet.
“Your clothes were either soiled or torn and I needed to understand the extent of your injuries.” The memory paused a moment allowing Braedo to remember the image of the young man as he’d given Braedo a disarming smile and added with a wink, “It’s not like I haven’t seen such things before. What’s your name my friend?”
“Braedo.” It had still hurt to move his jaw and the shame of what he had remembered and what he assumed had occurred had stolen too much of himself for Braedo to have continued.
“Well met Braedo. My name is Elias Sayer. You took quite a beating from that beast. He would have killed you if some of my boys hadn’t caused a commotion and snuck you out.”
“Where am I?”
“My place, The Strapping Lad; you’re safe here.” Elias had wiped Braedo carefully and the clean smell of the herbal wash had brought a slight easing of his body and spirit. Braedo could still remember the feel of his touch, the hidden strength behind Elias’ softness, the care to avoid causing any more pain to the wounds still left. “Were you his slave?”
“No. Yes. I should get back. If I’m gone too long he’ll…”
“Nonsense, you can’t go back to that animal. Anyway his days are numbered, all of yours are. One of the carriages you and your associates waylaid not only had the sweet take of gold but a person of some note here in Kaer Maga. His brethren are eager to exact revenge and recover their goods, in either order. Go back and you’re dead. By his hands, their hands or eventually your own when you can’t take any more of the slow murder he’s doing to you.”
Braedo had paled even more than he had been and looked for exits from the room.
“How did you know…?”
“About your highway banditry? The bounty on you all? The nature of your relationship with that Shoanti piece of crap?” Elias shrugged. “I have many friends throughout the city many of whom are Tallow Boys, swing doors, who hear quite a bit from the pillow talk from their benefactors. They tell me such things.” Elias had taken his face in his hands. “You have nothing to fear here Braedo. If I was going to collect on your head I would have done it without wasting my time. You are my guest and my boys will look after you.”
Elias then pulled the sheet away and had begun tending to the black bruising along Braedo’s ribs working his way to the rest of the blood and shit lower on, evidence of Pallok’s worst assault. Braedo hadn’t been able to look the young prostitute in the face so he had kept his humiliation and shame turned into the pillow.
“I understand you know. That bastard is a handsome one, to be sure. I know a fellow or two who have been his choice when he visits and his coolness and forceful demeanor are a draw but there’s naught there but poison. He’s a dog and he’s left bodies behind before. He’s not welcome here in the Lad, to be sure. I’ve made that mistake myself when I was far younger. Don’t go. He shaded you bad. You do then it’s likely you’ll die. Stay here, become a switch and recover. Get your strength back. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. We have most of your belongings here. You go back then you are the coward, you stay then you can be strong and decide if you want to get your revenge especially if you know where they are going to go when they leave Kaer Maga.”
Elias walked to a window and tossed the soiled water out into the street before placing the basin by the door. He stoked the fire and returned to the bed with a nightshirt. Braedo remembered little of the rest of that night except that Elias had made it easier to handle, that he hadn’t been alone. They had never become more than friends, good friends, intimate friends but Elias had saved Braedo. Helped him wash the wounds that Pellok had left behind away enough to function again and eventually given him a temporary home in Kaer Maga. He’d allowed Braedo to sell Pellok and his crew out to their enemies.
Braedo broke the surface of the frigid water and walked back to his clothes and gear telling Oberon and the rest that the pools was too deep to explore further. The cave’s air was warm enough that Braedo’s skin steamed as he dried and dressed himself. The rest prepared to move on as Braedo glanced at Oberon. Braedo knew who he was even if it was sometimes two different people from two different people and the tengu was as much a part of his adoptive family as Koya or Sandru but he wondered what Oberon would think of his if he knew all that had transpired since he had left so many years ago.